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Michigan State's interim president Teresa Woodruff shares her vision – Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State University interim President Teresa Woodruff was a director of the cancer center at Northwestern University Medical School in the early 2000s when a young boy with cancer came in to bank his reproductive cells.
Cancer-fighting treatments often make patients sterile, so the boy was banking his sperm cells so he could withdraw them later to start his family.
Woodruff asked a pivotal question: What was being done to help girls being treated for cancer have children later? She was told that girls needed to focus on surviving cancer.
That answer led Woodruff to make a transformational discovery to preserve the fertility of young people undergoing cancer treatments. It put her on a path to becoming one of the nation’s most highly esteemed researchers, and her work led to a new branch of medicine known as oncofertility. She’s been elected into the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors for scientists, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; holds 21patents; has given a TED talk; and was featured in a young adult book about 12 “Wonder Women” in science.
More than a decade after her career-defining discovery, in her first days at the helm of Michigan State University, Woodruff last week met a female cadet aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego, where MSU’s basketball team was playing Gonzaga in the Armed Forces Classic. When the cadet mentioned she had been treated for cancer at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington, D.C., and had an oncofertility visit, the two women hugged after Woodruff told the cadet that her work launched the field.
“That’s what fundamental science can do,” Woodruff told The Detroit News. “It can transform lives. That’s what Michigan State can do. We’re transforming lives. We are transforming 50,000 student lives. We are transforming every faculty and staff (member). Everyone (who) comes through here has been transformed. The negative news cycle is nothing to do with this university. This university is excellent, and it is moving forward, and it’s changing lives and it is making a difference. It’s why I want to lead.”
In an exclusive interview, Woodruff, 58, spoke of her vision as she becomes the second woman to lead Michigan State; former President Lou Anna Simon stepped down in 2018 at the height of the sex abuse scandal caused by the now-incarcerated Larry Nassar.
MSU’s ship has continued to be rocked by controversy and leadership changes since then. Woodruff acknowledges as much after her first few days on the job. But she says her focus is moving forward.
“We’re really all about bringing our community back together, and making sure the culture allows for the confidence for everyone to be successful,” Woodruff said. “When we have our confidence, we can be our best selves. We’ve had a little bit of oscillation over the past couple of months. But the underlying strength of Michigan State is everything you see out there is still there: Our students are extraordinary, our faculty are excellent, our staff are making the institution work every day.
“The key to all of that is communication, making sure we are in conversation across all the different dimensions” of MSU, she said.
Woodruff is the fourthperson to lead MSU since Simon’s departure nearly five years ago. First, former Michigan governor John Engler served as interim president. He was succeeded by interim president Satish Udpa, an MSU professor of electrical and computer engineering. In 2019, MSU hired Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley as the university’s first permanent leader after the Nassar scandal. But Stanley resigned in October after months of uncertainty over his future and what some trustees regarded as a communication breakdown.
Three days after Stanley’s resignation, MSU’s Board of Trustees said it would begin an immediate search for an interim president and that the search would include students, faculty, staff and alumni.
The campus community rallied around the prospect of Woodruff’s interim presidency quickly; in an Oct. 26 letter, members of the school’s Faculty Senate and other academic leaders wrote that appointing Woodruff “would be a forward-thinking move that stabilizes the university.” Woodruff received a standing ovation when she was formally appointed as interim president on Oct. 31.
During her interview with The News, Woodruff declined to say whether she is interested in the post permanently, noting she has only been on the job since Nov. 4 and is working.
“I am focused on each day: What are the needs of the university? How can I enable the best outcomes for the largest number of individuals and how do I be present and make sure what is happening at Michigan State, which is great, is communicated in the broadest possible way?” Woodruff said. “So I am really focused on the day-to-day, not focused on that future.”
Board Chair Dianne Byrum noted Stanley and Woodruff differ in their approaches to the president’s role. Stanley had an introverted, quiet style and worked through his leadership team. Woodruff is more “face-forward,” Byrum said.
“She’s more outgoing and engaging,” Byrum said. “She’s gone above and beyond in communicating with the campus community and the board. She’s made that a high priority to be a strong communicator.”
Asked if she expects Woodruff to be the permanent leader of MSU, Byrum said Woodruff could apply and expects she will. But Byrum added that she didn’t want to get ahead of the process, which will involve a national search and a presidential search committee.
Woodruff’s appointment to lead the university, for now, comes after her controversial decision to ask former MSU business school dean Sanjay Gupta to resign after he failed to report sexual misconduct. This prompted the Board of Trustees to hire outside lawyers for an independent review.
While the board was informed of Woodruff’s decision to ask for Gupta’s resignation, which was supported by Stanley, trustees learned about it after it occurred. Some trustees felt they did not get adequate information to make sure it was the correct determination. On Aug. 30, the board announced that it was hiring outside legal counsel to review the decision. The report has not yet been made available.
Asked about her relationship with the board and the outside investigation, Woodruff said the trustees are on campus for a reason.
“I believe they all care about Michigan State University,” she said. “What we need to do with them is to also come together in community. We need to come together in a way that allows us to hear each other. That is the prime objective I have is to understand the eight individuals and the eight individuals’ viewpoint and to develop a strategy by which we can build governance and leadership in a way that moves the university forward. That is one of my prime objectives.”
Pressed to comment on the move the board made to hire outside investigators, Woodruff said she understands the motive.
“I think the board is really trying to think about what is in the best interests of the university from their vantage point,” Woodruff said. “My job is to help them see the university I see, and see how we can best enable this university to go forward.”
Besides Udpa, the departures of MSU’s last few presidents were linked to the fallout of the sexual misconduct of Nassar or the Title IX office, which investigates claims of sexual misconduct.
Asked to assess MSU since Nassar, who sexually abused scores of women and girls under the guise of medicine, Woodruff said the university is surveying the community to make informed decisions. She said the school is also searching for a vice president for the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance and emphasized the importance of having the right leaders.
“We have put a lot into place in order to enable a campus to be able to develop a culture and community and understanding paralleled with systems and policies,” Woodruff said. “Now, as we go forward with surveys so we can know what is happening, we don’t say what we think. We ask so that we can know.”
She said she has met with the MSU leaders and staff in charge of addressing and changing the culture around sexual misconduct at MSU, “to support them, and let them know we entrust them and are enabling to their work.”
“And to make sure the campus knows what needs to happen in order to maintain a safe and welcoming campus environment,” Woodruff said. “I am highly committed to this. This is an area that I have worked on for many years, and so this represents a prime objective.”
Woodruff said she was planning to spend part of her day Monday meeting with various student groups.
“My goal is to not be in the office,” she said. “We need to connect what we are doing administratively to what the student experience is.”
Woodruff said she intends to continue all that has been set up in recent years to improve the university, especially in student success metrics. She specifically noted the goal of increasing the student graduation rate from 82% to 86% and working to eliminate gaps between certain groups, including men and women and racial and ethnic groups.
“Part of that represents the ways in which we need to tailor a university environment that’s ready for everyone who comes,” Woodruff said. “We believe everyone that we admit can thrive and graduate.”
She also highlighted a goal to increasestudent counselors so that the university’s counselor-student ratio is reduced from one to 3,000 to one to 200, which would lead the nation.
She will also focus on enabling the faculty’s success as educators and in scholarship.
“One of the reasons students do succeed is because our faculty teach in a unique way,” Woodruff said. “Most places will teach what is evidence of the fact of the book. I call that ‘horizontal learning and teaching’ — what’s the found knowledge. Our educators teach in a vertical way. Not only what is the fundamental knowledge, but we teach our students how to ask questions, and how to engage with the world around them. That allows them to be part of a community and part of that larger mission that is in service to others, which really underlies all that we do at Michigan State.”
Woodruff’s contract for serving as interim president is still being finalized, so her salary is not available, according to MSU spokesman Dan Olsen. As MSU’s provost, Woodruff earned $562,069 annually.
She recommended senior associate provost Thomas Jeitschko to serve as interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs while she leads the university as it searches for its next president. Jeitschko’s post is pending approval by the board, scheduled for consideration at its Dec. 16 meeting.
Woodruff is featured in the 2021 young adult book, “Wonder Women of Science: Twelve Geniuses Who are Currently Rocking Science, Technology, and the World.”
“It’s a book showcasing and highlighting amazing women in the fields of science and these particular fields are ones that you typically imagine a male,” said Tiera Fletcher, an aerospace engineer based in Hawaii who co-authored the book with Ginger Rue.
Fletcher called Woodruff “a pioneer in her field.”
Woodruff was almost an elementary school teacher, according to her profile in the book. She comes from a line of teachers: Her grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Oklahoma, and her mother taught first grade.
But Woodruff’s career path forked after she took a chemistry course at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, where her father was a professor. She went on to earn her doctoral degree at Northwestern University and become a reproductive scientist, spending most of her career at Northwestern, in Evanston, Ill., near her hometown of Kankakee, Ill., south of Chicago.
James Finkelstein, a George Mason University public policy professor emeritus who studies college presidents, said that Woodruff’s career is in the “upper echelon of academic researchers.”
She has been principal investigator on 116 National Institute of Health grants since 1996, totaling over $50 million. Finkelstein called that “very, very significant” and “the real deal in terms of an academic researcher.”
He and Judith Wilde, who is a research professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at GMU and also an expert in presidential contracts, conducted a survey of presidents at flagship universities in every state.The study was based on an “h index,” which is a measure of how often an academic researcher is cited by other researchers in major journals. The highest h index in the study was a university president in Vermont, who had a lifetime index of 96. Woodruff’s lifetime h index is 103, Finkelstein said. If Woodruff and MSU had been included in the study, she would have been the top researcher in the nation.
“She would have the highest lifetime h index of anybody we looked at,” Finkelstein said. “She would also have the highest h index for the last five years. It’s very impressive. Clearly, she is a very impressive academic, scholar and researcher.”
Woodruff’s most-cited piece was published in 2009 in the New England Journal of Medicine, Preservation of Fertility in Patients with Cancer. It’s a study with two co-authors, not numerous authors like some academic journal articles include, Finkelstein said. It’s been cited 681 times by other academic researchers.
“For something over a decade old, that is a lot,” Finkelstein said. “But it is still being cited today, cited 23 times this in 2022, 13 years after it was published.”
He added that major research universities like to have presidents who are serious academics.
“But just because you are a serious academic doesn’t mean you are going to be a great leader,” Finkelstein said.
Some at Michigan State would disagree.
“Not only does she have a sterling academic record, she also has been very professional,” said d’Ann de Simone, a professor in MSU’s Department of Art, Art History and Design. “She listens. She shepherded us, along with (former) President Stanley, through COVID-19, and was able to ensure the continuity of education for the students. I find her to be very caring about students and focused, and she listens to faculty, and she has done a great deal to move the university forward.”
Woodruff moved into an academic administrative role at Northwestern in 2000 at the request of a colleague to become associate director of the basic science program at Northwestern’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, she said. She then became director of Northwestern’s Center for Reproductive Science and also started the university’s Women’s Health Research Institute. She was also the dean and associate provost for graduate education at Northwesternstarting in 2017.
In her leadership roles at Northwestern, Woodruff said it was there that the oncofertility branch of medicine was born, an idea that she calls “from bench to bedside to babies.” The institute she started led many governance activities, including changing federal requirements at theNational Institutes of Health so that females are consistently included in fundamental science.
“Before that work, 82% of all papers had male cells or male animals as the fundamental organism that was used in basic science,” Woodruff said. “Since that time, in 2017-18, what we are going to see is a profound change in the way in which women now can experience the same kind of health outcomes as males, because we are present as a sex at the earliest stages of fundamental science.”
Woodruff left Northwestern in 2020 and joined MSU as provost, the chief academic officer and second-highest-ranking official. She was appointed by Stanley after a six-month national search process by a 22-person search committee of faculty, staff and students. The committee worked with Parker Executive Search, an executive search firm specializing in higher education administration, to fill the position.
She said she joined MSU “to be a transformative leader in a time of transition.”
“We are really still in that lineage, and I hope to continue to be in that format while I am interim president,” Woodruff said.
At the MSU board meeting when Stanley recommended Woodruff be hired as provost, Eunice Foster, thenpresident of MSU’s Black Faculty, Staff and Administrators Association (BFSAA), expressed concern. Foster said students at Northwestern had raised red flags about Woodruff’s handling of underrepresented and marginalized students.
Two and a half years later, Foster said she has changed her mind about Woodruff and has been pleased with her performance. She even told her that publicly during a meeting.
“One of the hopes BFSAA had was that MSU moved forward in the area of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), and that has happened,” said Foster, an MSU professor and crop physiologist.
Foster noted there has been an emphasis on DEI in MSU’s strategic plan. The university also has a separate but complementary DEI strategic plan that outlines how the university’s colleges make DEI a part of reappointment, promotion and tenure process, and part of an annual evaluation.
Woodruff’s “appearance and indications show sincerity and believing in those efforts and pushing those efforts forward,” Foster said. That’s why she thinks putting Woodruff at MSU helm was “the best decision.”
“She can continue the movement that has begun, not just in DEI, but in other areas of the university as well,” Foster said.
Asked to respond to DEI efforts, Woodruff said, “What we are doing is looking at diversity as the way to enable the broadest success.”
“Diversity underlies a lot of success for the state of Michigan’s sons and daughters,” she said. “We want to make sure that every student, no matter their background or setting, when they walk through the doors … we want to engineer the environment into which they can succeed.”
Woodruff has gained the respect of other MSU faculty and students.
“Interim President Woodruff, within her time at MSU, has been one of if not the only person within the administration who consistently advocated on behalf of every student,” said Carl Austin Miller Grondin, MSU student body vice president who has worked with Woodruff to get a fall break and a mid-semester evaluation for classes.
“She has made sure student voices are brought up to her and brought to the table,” Miller Grondin said. “I have seen her walk around campus and go up to random students and just talk to them … She is constantly asking students, ‘What can campus do better?'”
Added Tyler Silvestri, secretary of MSU Academic Governance: “What sets Teresa apart is her listening. When she doesn’t understand or disagrees, her first impulse is not to reject the confusing or contradictory, her first impulse is to understand. It’s been really refreshing.”
Teresa Woodruff
Age: 58
Current job: Interim president, Michigan State University
Hometown: Kankakee, Ill.
Professional background: Woodruff was appointed provost and executive vice president for academic affairs in April 2020. Previously, she was dean of the graduate school and associate provost for graduate education at Northwestern University and held the Watkins Professorship in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In addition to her role as interim president, Woodruff is an MSU Foundation professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology and the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Education: B.S., Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Ill; Ph.D., Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. She holds honorary degrees from Bates College and the University of Birmingham School of Medicine.
Some notable awards and achievements: Woodruff is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Inventors, the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineers, the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She holds the 2022 Distinguished Woman in Higher Education Leadership Award, awarded by the American Council on Education Michigan Women’s Network. In 2011, Woodruff was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring by President Barack Obama. Woodruff received the Endocrine Society’s 2021 Auerbach Laureate Award, a top honor that recognizes the highest achievements in the field of endocrinology. She holds 21 patents.